The Beerage : From Rags to Riches – Part II (Or “To Cask or Not To Cask? That Is The Question.”) 

​”Money money money money, money. 

Some people got to have it, some people really need it. 

Listen to me y’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it. 

You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it. 

Talk about cash money, money.  Talk about cash money, dollar bills, y’all”

(For The Love of Money” – The O’Jays) 

Hark! Is that the sound of the first of many dominoes falling?

On New Year’s Day, Paul Jones of Cloudwater – via the medium of the brewery blog – announced that they were to stop packaging beer in cask. 

As a lover of cask conditioned beer, this news saddened me. Cloudwater have made some excellent beer packaged in cask – I have very fond memories of their first DIPA (or v1 for those beholden to such designations) in cask at the brewery tap; I was also enamoured of the IPA Nelson Sauvin that they provided for ISBF2016 – but many of their hoppier beers have worked better in keg. So, on that level, no surprise in their choice. 

What DID surprise me though, was the statement that Cloudwater are not yet in a profit situation. 

So they have partly addressed that. By abandoning the cask conditioning of some of their beers (and no, it isn’t the only reason…..) 

Now here’s the thing, I adore cask conditioned beer. When properly conditioned and looked after in the cellar, it is a tremendous thing. And therein lies the rub, those words “When properly conditioned and looked after in the cellar”. I do most of my drinking in the centre of Manchester and am fortunate that those bars and pubs that I drink in look after their beer. 

In short, the beer is (ordinarily) in excellent condition. But not all bars and pubs are so conscientious. And most micro breweries – like Cloudwater – want their beer served so that it tastes as they intended. And the one of the arguments in Paul’s blog post was that that could not be guaranteed with cask (I paraphrase, of course) 

Another reason is margin. 

In an age where Wetherspoons buy beers at £45 – £55 a cask and breweries churn out 9g casks at similar prices to pubs (and some – in addition – at “buy X,  get Y free”) quality   breweries struggle to compete and consequently lose customers as pubs demand the lowest possible prices. 

And the thing about cheap beer is? (IMHO of course!) It tastes cheap. And – due to price – it pushes good beer off the bar. Or forces breweries to race to the bottom, lowering standards to lower price. A vicious circle to those of us who love good beer. 

Keeping standards up – in terms of ingredients and equipment – is expensive. The maths is – like myself – fairly simple, brewing good beer costs. To keep doing it, the brewers need to make more money. So how? 

Cloudwater – like many new wave (I’m a child of Punk!) breweries – see their future in packaging their beers in keg for the draught market. They are not the first (Buxton went that way nearly 18 months ago, Beavertown, The Kernel…. ) and almost certainly not the last. Packaging in Key Keg means the entire cost of the beer falls upon the customer; it means no investment in expensive casks that frequently don’t return – at least directly (leading to greater cost in retrieval from the likes of Keg Watch). 

Brewing – at least for the small operations – is not just about the beer. It’s about chasing outstanding payments; it’s about chasing materials (casks); deliveries; sales and marketing; social media; (increasingly) Brewtap organising. It’s bloody long hours. Bloody hard graft. For precious little reward. Reading the message from Jay Krause (of Quantum) detailing why he was quitting his own business was heartbreaking for those of us who’ve enjoyed his journey through beer. Running a brewery is a stressful business. It must feel good just to brew beer. 

It goes back to my original premise. That beer is too cheap, certainly in cask format. So what is the answer? I’ve said some of these previously. 

1. Own your own outlet(s) – control both the quality from creation to dispense and the price. This costs, especially in an expensive real estate area like Manchester (something that Cloudwater themselves partially address with their involvement in The Pilcrow) and few have the kind of money to do this. 

2. Scale. Increase volumes – reducing percentage overheads in order to increase “profit”. Again, this comes with the cost of investment in larger kit (tuns, coppers, FVs, tanks). Unaffordable to most – especially when many chase thousands of pounds in overdue payments as part of “the job”. (Remember, pubs/bars are cash businesses…..) 

3. Brewtaps. These do provide the sugar rush of a direct cash injection. And also give the brewer control of the quality of product at the point of dispense. But these take an awful lot of time and effort to organise, eating into the functional week of the brewery. They also eat into that most underrated (yet increasingly precious the older you get) commodity. Free time. 

Breweries need to make money. They are businesses, not charities. And part of that equation is that the brewery needs to be paid an appropriate price for the beer. And if that means “more”, then it means we – the drinker – need to pay more. To me, it reminds me of myself; simple. 

Some commentators – perhaps with a “craft” agenda – are heralding the demise of cask, following on from Paul’s (Cloudwater) blog post. Those who are, are patently talking utter bollocks. There is some bloody gorgeous cask conditioned beer brewed by Micros locally, served with due regard and skill by local pubs and bars. 

But unless the breweries that make this beer can actually make profit, the number of these breweries will surely diminish. 

And that scenario is coming. It won’t be breweries dropping cask that will be the concern. It will be micro breweries ceasing to exist. 

And that will be a sadder thing. 

P. S. For an idea of the financials of brewing – from a brewers perspective – read this from Steve at Beer Nouveau.